Jacksonian Miscellanies, #70

September 22, 1998

Revival (In the Old Sense) at Amherst

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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Revival (In the Old Sense) at Amherst

When the phrase "religious revival" is used, most people today will, I think, envision a planned series of meetings, or, as in the early 19th century U.S., a continuous meeting that goes on for days. In any event, someone hired a church, or a field and some tents, and guest speakers, and planned an event. This conception of a revival only became instutionalized in early 19th century America. But while Charles Grandisson Finney and others were pioneering the revival as we know it, others objected to Finney and his ilk on the grounds that only God determines when a revival can occur.

One such was Jacob Abbott, from 1825-1829, professor of mathematics and moral philosophy at Amherst, before becoming well known as a writer of inspirational books for children and youth. In 1834, in The Cornerstone, he describes his idea of a real revival, in contrast to what he called "heartless efforts to make a revival":

In Abbott's account:

In contrast to a man-made pseudo-revival, the real revival, a "visit from above" "appears", and "in ten days its object [was, in this case] accomplished." On such an occasion,

The full description, which begins about p320 (I don't have the book at hand), follows:

Such is college, and such substantially was the condition of Amherst College, in April, 1827, at the time of my narrative. Faithful religious instruction was given on the Sabbath, at the chapel, where the students were required to attend, and we were accustomed to hold also, a meeting for familiar religious instruction one evening during the week. At this meeting, however, scarcely any were present;-a small portion of the actual members of the church were accustomed to attend, but never any one else. If a single individual, not professedly a Christian, had come in, for a single evening, it would have been noticed as a rare occurrence, and talked of by the officers as something unexpected and extraordinary. Our hearts ached, and our spirits sunk within us, to witness the coldness and hardness of heart towards God and duty, which reigned among so large a number of our pupils. Every private effort which we could make with individuals, entirely failed, and we could see too, that those who professed to love the Savior, were rapidly losing their interest in his cause, and becoming engrossed in literary ambition and college rivalry, dishonoring God's cause, and gradually removing every obstacle to the universal prevalence of vice and sin.

There was then in college, a young man, who had been among the foremost in his opposition to religion. His talents and his address gave him a great deal of personal influence, which was of such a character as to be a constant source of solicitude to the government. He was repeatedly involved in difficulties with the officers on account of his transgressions of the College laws, and so well known were his feelings on the subject, that when at a government meeting, during the progress of the revival, we were told with astonishment, by the President, that this young man was suffering great distress on account of his sins, it was supposed by one of the officers, that it must be all a presence, feigned to deceive the President, and make sport for his companions. The President did not reply to the suggestion, but went to visit him; and when I next saw him, he said, "There's no presence there. If the Spirit of God is not at work upon his heart, I know nothing about the agency of the Spirit."

That young man is now the pastor of a church, active and useful, and when commencing this narrative, I wrote to him to send me such reminiscences of this scene as might remain upon his mind. He writes me thus.

I here interrupt, for a moment, the narrative of my friend, to mention all the indications which I, myself, or my brother officers perceived. The President, with faithfulness, and plainness, urged upon the professors of religion, their duties and their neglect, and held up to them the evidences that they were, as a body, wandering from duty, and becoming unfaithful to their trust. But he had done this, often, before. In fact, he was in the habit of doing it. The difference seemed to be, that though heretofore they would listen with stupid coldness, and go away unchanged,-now they suddenly seemed inspired with a disposition to hear, and with a heart to feel. They began to come in greater numbers to the meetings appointed for them, and to listen with silent solemnity to warnings and expostulations which had been always unheeded before. All the efforts which were made were aimed at leading Christ's followers to penitence, and at bringing them back to duty. And though it had been impossible before, it was perfectly easy now; and while this very work was going on,-actually before the time had come for thinking of the others,-they began spontaneously, or at least, to all appearance without human exertion, to tremble for themselves. The officers and the religious students were astonished day after day to find numbers whom no faithfulness of expostulation had hitherto been able to affect at all, now coming, of their own accord, and asking for help and direction; trembling with anxiety and remorse on account of their past sins, and with fear of God's displeasure. But to return to my correspondent.

I must interrupt the narrative of the letter again, to explain a circumstance which I perceive is alluded to in the next paragraph. About a year before this time, there had been similar indications of a returning sense of duty to God, among the students. The officers were much encouraged, but our hopes were all dispelled by the success of a manoevre which is so characteristic of college life and manners that I will describe it. The plan adopted by the enemies of religion was to come up boldly, and face the awakening interest, and, as it were, brave it down. The first indication of this design which I perceived was this. I had been invited by the serious portion of the students to address them one Saturday evening in a recitation room. I took my seat in the great armed­chair which had been placed for me in a corner with a bible and hymn­book on the oval leaf attached to it, whose form and fashion any collegian will recollect, when the door opened, and in walked, one after another, six or eight of the most bold, hardened, notorious enemies of religion which the institution contained. They walked in, took their seats, in a row directly before me, and looked me in the face,-saying by their countenances most distinctly, 'Sir, we defy you, and all your religion:'-and yet, it was with that peculiar address, with which a wild college student can execute his plans, so that there was not the slightest breach of any rule of external propriety, or any tangible evidence of intentional disrespect. Not one of them had, perhaps, ever been voluntarily in a religious meeting at college before, and every one in the room knew it. I can see the leader now, as distinctly as if he was before me:-his tall form, manly countenance, and energetic look. He maintained his ground as the enemy of God and religion, for a year after this time:-but then, that is at the time described in my letter, his eyes were opened: he prayed with agony of spirit, hour after hour, in his open room, for forgiveness; and now he is in a foreign land preaching to pagans the Savior, whom I vainly endeavored on this occasion to bring to him. I do not know whether this description will ever reach him; if it does, he will remember the meeting in the Freshman recitation room,- and be as bold for God now, as he was then against him. He has been so already.

After a few similar efforts to this, the irreligious party, for it is almost a trained and organized party, determined to carry their system farther still. They accordingly formed a plan for a religious meeting from which every friend of religion should be excluded. They circulated the information among themselves, taking special pains to secure the attendance of every one, and then, one evening, after prayers, as the officers were coming out of the chapel, one of them was astonished at being accosted by two well­known enemies of every thing like piety, who appeared, as they said, from some of their friends, as a committee to invite him to attend a religious meeting that evening. The officer promised to come; and when, after tea, he repaired to the room, he found it crowded with persons whose faces he had never seen at a voluntary meeting before. There they sat, the idle, the dissipated, the profane, and the hater and despiser of God; there were also numerous others, moral and well­disposed, but regardless of religious duty; but not a single one whom he had been accustomed to see in such a room, for such a purpose, was, on this occasion, allowed to be there.

The officer addressed them faithfully and plainly, urging their duties and their sins upon their consideration, while they sat still, in respectful but heartless silence; looking intently upon him, with an expression of countenance which seemed to say, "Here we all are, move us if you can." And they conquered. They went home unmoved; and all the indications of increasing seriousness, soon disappeared. They continued to assemble for several weeks, inviting the officers in succession to be present, and at last, the few who remained conducted the meetings themselves, with burlesqued sermons, and mock prayers, and closed the series at last as I have been informed, by bringing in an ignorant black man, whose presence and assistance completed the victory they had gained over influences from above. All this took place the year before, and it is to these circumstances that the next paragraph in the letter alludes.

The writer of the narrative which I have been transcribing, had then a mother: she has since gone home. She was a widow, and he her only child. She was a Christian too, and her heart was oppressed, and her life saddened, by the character and conduct of her son. He wrote to her at this time, and among her papers after her death, he found his letters, and has sent them to me. I wish I could put them, just as they are, into this description;-tattered and torn with frequent perusal.. Those widowed and lonely mothers among my readers, whose lives are imbittered by the impiety and wild irregularity of an unconverted son, will understand the feelings which led her, literally to wear these letters out, with repeated readings. As they read them, let them look to God, and take courage, and remember that it is never too late to pray, and never too late for God to answer prayer.

In the first letter, he informs his mother of the indications of a general awakening to an interest in religion among the students, and expresses a considerable personal interest in it. "For the sake of the institution, of religion, and for my own sake, I feel most anxious that the work may go on with power. With what joy would I inform you, that I felt the strivings of the Holy Spirit in my breast. But I can only say, that I feel a growing sense of humiliation for sin. May it ripen into conviction, sincere repentance, and unfeigned dedication of my heart, soul, and powers to God." He then asked for his mother's prayers, and thanks her for all her past kindness to him.

The anxious suspense which this letter must have occasioned to the parent who received it, was dispelled a few days afterwards by the following. Before perusing it, I wish the reader would look around, in the village or town, where he resides, fix his mind upon the leader in all the opposition to God and religion, which is made there; some man of accomplished manners and address, superior intellect, and extensive influence,-and the open and avowed opposer of piety, and all of its professors. You must have such a man in mind as the writer, in order to appreciate it at all. Then recollect that this is from an only son to a widowed Christian mother,- transcribed exactly from the tattered fragments which now carefully put together.

I have thus followed out this particular case, in order to give to my readers, by means of a minute examination of one specimen, a clear idea of the nature of the changes which were effected. There were, however, many other cases, as marked and striking as this; so that any person who was a member of college at that time, might be in doubt, after reading the preceding description, which of half a dozen decided enemies of religion, who were at this time changed, was the one referred to. In fact the feeling went through the college;-it took the whole. Nothing like opposition to it was known, except that perhaps in a very few cases individuals made efforts to shield themselves from its influence; and one or two did this successfully, by keeping themselves for many days, under the influence of ardent spirit! With a few exceptions of this kind, the unwonted and mysterious influence was welcomed by all. It was not, among Christians, a feeling of terror, of sadness and melancholy, but of delight. Their countenances were not gloomy and morose, as many persons suppose is the case at such a time, but they beamed with an expression of enjoyment, which seemed to be produced by the all pervading sense of the immediate presence of God. I have seen, in other cases, efforts to appear solemn,-the affected gravity of countenance, and seriousness of tone;-but there was nothing of that here. Hearts were all full to overflowing, and it was with a mysterious mingling of peace and joy,-an emotion of deep overwhelming gladness in the soul, though of a character so peculiar, that it expressed itself in the countenance by mingled smiles and tears.

The ordinary exercises of college were not interrupted. The President held two or three religious meetings during the week, but recitations went on unchanged and I well recollect the appearance of my mathematical classes. The students would walk silently and slowly from their rooms, and assemble at the appointed place. It was plain that the hearts of many of them were full of such emotions as I have described. Others, whose peace was not made with God, would sit with downcast eyes, and when it came their turn to be questioned, would make an effort to control their feelings, and finding that they could not recite, would ask me to excuse them. Others, known heretofore as hardened enemies of God and religion, sat still, their heads reclined upon the seats before them, with hearts overwhelmed with remorse and sorrow, and eyes filled with tears. I could not ask them a question. One morning, I recollect, so strong and so universal were these feelings, that we could not go on. The room was silent as death. Every eye was down; I called upon one after another, but in vain; and we together prayed God to come and be with us, and bless us, and to save us and our classmates from sin and suffering, and then silently went to our rooms.

The buildings were as still this week as if they had been depopulated. The students loved to be alone. They walked about silently. They said little when they met, as men always do when their hearts are full. Late in the evening they would collect in little circles in one another's rooms, to spend a few moments in prayer. I was often invited to these meetings, and it was delightful to see the little assembly coming into the room at the appointed time, each bringing his own chair, and gathering around the bright burning fire, with the armed­chair placed in one corner for their instructor, and the two occupants of the room together upon the other side. They who were present at these meetings will not soon forget the enjoyment with which their hearts were filled, as they here bowed in supplication before God.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings we assembled in the largest lecture room, for more public worship. It was the same room where, a few weeks before, on the same occasions, we could see only here and there one among the vacant, gloomy seats. Now how changed. At the summons of the evening bell, group after group, ascended the stairs and crowded the benches. It was the rhetorical lecture room, and was arranged with rows of seats on the three sides, and a table for the Professor on a small platform on the fourth. The seats were soon full, and settees were brought in to fill the area left in the centre. The President was seated at the table; on either side of him the Professors; and beyond them, and all around, the room was crowded with young men hungering and thirsting after the word of God.

I recollect particularly one of these meetings. It was one of the earliest after the revival commenced, and before us, crowding the settees in the open area, were gathered all the wild, irreligious, vicious and abandoned young men which the institution contained. There they were, the whole of them; all enmity gone, opposition silenced, and pride subdued, and they sat in silence gazing at the President and drinking in all his words as he pressed upon them their sins, and urged them to throw down the weapons of their rebellion, and come and submit themselves to God. The text for the evening, if I recollect right, was this, "Notwithstanding, be ye sure of this, the kingdom of God, has come nigh unto you." Every person in the room felt that it was nigh. He spoke in a calm, quiet, but impressive manner, and every word went to a hundred and fifty hearts. Many persons imagine that preaching in such a season is loud and noisy, and set off with exciting remarks, and extravagant gesticulations; and it is so sometimes, when men attempt to make a revival by their own power. But where the spirit of God really comes, there are very different indications. Every one feels irresistibly that God is there, and that he himself must walk humbly and softly before him. The almost supernatural power which preaching seems to have at such a time is the power of simple truth, on hearts bowed down before it by influences from above. Such a season robs eloquence and genius of all their power; declamation is more than useless, and all the arts of oratory of no avail. There are souls awed and subdued before God, and longing for the light of truth; and he who can supply these desires with the greatest calmness, and directness, and simplicity, will be the means of producing the most powerful effects. A man could scarcely give utterance to rant and declamation and noisy harangue in such a room, even if he had come all prepared to do it. As he should enter such a scene, he would be subdued and calmed by its irresistible influence. He would instinctively feel, that noisy eloquence there would grate upon every ear and shock every heart, and no bold assurance would be sufficient to carry him on.

We listened to the sermon, which was earnest and impressive, though direct, plain, and simple; it told the ungodly hearers before us, that the kingdom of heaven was nigh them, and urged them to enter it. We knew, -we could almost feel that they were entering it; and when, at the close of the meeting, we sang our parting hymn, I believe there was as much real, deep flowing happiness in that small but crowded apartment, as four such walls ever contained.

When the indications of this visit from above first appeared, it was about a fortnight before the close of the term, and in about ten days its object was accomplished. Out of the whole number of those who had been irreligious at its commencement, about one half professed to have given themselves up to God; but as to all the talent, and power of opposition, and open enmity,-the vice, the profaneness, the dissipation,-the revival took the whole. With one or two exceptions, it took the whole. And when, a few weeks afterwards, the time arrived for those thus changed to make a public profession of religion, it was a striking spectacle to see them standing in a crowd in the broad aisle of the college chapel, purified, sanctified, and in the presence of all their fellow students renouncing sin, and solemnly consecrating themselves to God. Seven years have since elapsed, and they are in his service now. I have their names before me, and I do not know of one who does not continue faithful to his Master still.

But I have dwelt too long perhaps on this subject, and I must close this chapter. I have been intending however to say two things in conclusion, though I must now say them briefly.

1. There are many persons who, because they have seen or heard of many spurious and heartless efforts to make a revival of religion, accompanied by noise and rant, and unprofitable excitement, doubt the genuineness of all these reformations. But I ask them whether the permanent alteration, in a week, of nearly all the wild and ungovernable and vicious students of a college, is not evidence of the operation of some extraordinary moral cause. We who witnessed it cannot doubt. Such cases too, are not uncommon. They occur continually, all over our land, producing entire changes in neighborhoods and villages and towns, and very often in colleges. The effect in this case upon the police of the institution was astonishing. Before the revival, the officers of the institution were harassed and perplexed with continual anxiety and care, from the turbulence and vice of their pupils. But from this time we had scarcely any thing to do with the discipline of the institution. Month after month, every thing went smoothly and pleasantly, and we had nothing to do but to provide instruction for industrious, faithful and regular young men; while before, the work of punishing misdemeanors, and repressing disorder, and repairing injuries, demanded far the greatest portion of our attention and care. Similar changes have often been produced in other communities, and the fact that so many persons have thus had the opportunity personally to witness them, is the real ground of the conviction which almost universally prevails, among the most intelligent and substantial portions of the community, that they are the work of God. That there will be some counterfeits is to be expected. As human nature is, it is certain. But we ought, when convinced that there are counterfeits, not to condemn all, but carefully to discriminate, and to bring before the world the marks of a counterfeit as distinctly as possible, so that nothing but what is genuine may obtain credit among mankind.

2. Reader, there is such a thing as having the heart filled with peace and joy, under the influence of the Spirit of God. Do not doubt it, if you have not yourself experienced it, and do not forget it if you have. The mysterious influence shows itself in many ways. It whispers to the soul sometimes in solitude, at midnight, and beckons it away from the world to God and duty. The morning light, and the return of business and pleasures silence it, perhaps,-but then it will return in sickness, in affliction, and sorrow, and say to the spirit, still lingering about the world, "Come away, come away." It may be disregarded still,-but it will hover near, and like a dove unwilling to leave its master, will flutter round and light upon him again and again. It melts the soul into penitence for sins which have been thought of with cold insensibility for years,-it subdues stubbornness and pride,-it removes the vail from before the tomb, and brings God and the judgment and heaven to view. It gives life and sensibility to the torpid soul,- arouses its powers, nerves the weak, humbles the proud, breaks the chains and fetters of sin, and under its magic power, the hardened, rebellious, stupid enemy of God, rises to life and to freedom. His restless, feverish, anxiety is gone, and joy gladdens his heart, hope beams in his eye, and he comes to his Savior, subdued, altered, purified, for ever. Blessed Spirit, thou art indeed the light and life of man;-the only real Comforter, in this vale of sorrow and sin. We will pray for thee, and open our hearts to thee, and welcome thy coming. Descend, heavenly influence, descend every where, and bring this Sinning and suffering world back to its duty.

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